Just about the time we start to see temperatures rise above freezing, maple sap begins flowing. In Western New York, this occurs around late February and early March. Because sap can flow even when the tree is dormant, the temperature change is essential since it draws water from the trees’ roots through the tree, allowing the sap to flow more easily.
Keeping the trees healthy and productive is a major concern, so selecting the proper trees and inserting the best number of taps is vital. Current recommendations call for one tap for trees at least 12 inches in diameter and two taps for trees with a diameter greater than 18 inches. This conservative tapping guideline produces less sap per tree in the short-term, but is more productive long-term.
The next consideration involves collecting sap safely and not injuring the tree beyond its ability to heal. Trees properly tapped can produce sap for decades. So, maple producers use a specialized bit which drills a hole about a half-inch wide and three inches deep. The hole is drilled about four-and-a-half fee above the ground at an upward angle of about 10 degrees. That allows gravity to assist in draining the sap from the trees.
Maple producers use a specialized piece of equipment called a spile to draw the sap from the tree. A spile is similar to a spigot. It’s gently inserted into the tree by hand and then seated with a mallet or hammer. Spiles serve several purposes – they provide a seal against the spread of microorganisms into the tree, they allow sap to flow out and they support the sap collection system (bucket or plastic tubing). Spiles remain in the tree until the sap season is completed, generally when the sap flow ceases or when sap loses it sugar content.
When you think of tapping maple trees, you think of covered buckets hanging from spiles. But in the 1950s, plastic tubing made maple tapping less labor-intensive and more cost-efficient. The tubes connected each tree to a central collection system. Since the 1960s, maples producers have used vacuum pumps with plastic tubing systems to collect sap.
Sap often is stored in tanks holding the equivalent of two days of good sap flow, or about two to three gallons per tap.